Indigenous leaders call for investigation into six deaths at Smithers housing facility

Dze L K’ant executive director Annette Morgan, right, discusses the issue of Goodacre Place deaths via video chat at Bovill Square April 23. (Thom Barker photo)Dze L K’ant executive director Annette Morgan, right, discusses the issue of Goodacre Place deaths via video chat at Bovill Square April 23. (Thom Barker photo)
Goodacre Place in Smithers has been the site of six Indigenous men’s deaths in the past 12 months. (Thom Barker photo)Goodacre Place in Smithers has been the site of six Indigenous men’s deaths in the past 12 months. (Thom Barker photo)
An RCMP officer takes statements from individuals who were allegedly threatened by men in a passing vehicle at Bovill Square April 23. (Thom Barker photo)An RCMP officer takes statements from individuals who were allegedly threatened by men in a passing vehicle at Bovill Square April 23. (Thom Barker photo)

When Goodacre Place opened its doors in February 2019, it was heralded as a major step forward in addressing the homelessness situation in Smithers.

Now a cloud of grief and fear hangs over the 22-unit facility, which has recorded six deaths of Indigenous men within the past 12 months according to a joint press release from the Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre and BC Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres (BCAAFC).

Kirsten Patrick lost two cousins – Brandon Patrick and Eric Wilson. She was trying to get a spot at Goodacre, but is having second thoughts.

“We were going to, but I don’t want to because of everything that’s been happening.”

Driving the fear is a lack of answers.

READ MORE: Goodacre Place: A partial success story

“My cousin Brandon, they just found him recently and they said his lips were blue and his face was blue, and apparently there was a guy in there who was selling drugs … that’s all I heard.”

The BC Coroner’s Service said it only has records of four deaths in that time period and is not releasing information.

“One of the deaths was determined to not meet the criteria for a coroner’s investigation, and the other three investigations remain open and ongoing,” said Ryan Panton, a spokesperson for the coroner’s service. “Per the Coroners Act, we are unable to disclose any information regarding open investigations.”

Stewart Sampson is a current resident who says drug and alcohol use is rampant within the facility. He’s moving out.

“I fear for my life; I don’t know whether or not I’m going to wake up there.”

Annette Morgan, Dze L K’ant executive director, is demanding a provincial inquiry into the matter.

“What we want to do is ensure an investigation is done, and that an Indigenous person does this investigation.”

Stikine MLA Nathan Cullen said April 27 that the province is hiring two investigators, one of whom will be Wet’suwet’en to conduct an independent review.

“It’s incredibly tragic,” he said. “I knew a lot of these guys, beautiful each and every one in their own way. I’m feeling for their families and also the staff, everybody is just reeling.”

Cathryn Olmstead, executive director of SCSA, said in a press release April 27 that her organization and the staff at Goodacre Place have been devastated and they welcome an independent review of their programs and services “because it will bring out the truth.”

READ MORE: Community Association responds to Indigenous deaths at housing facility

“We have already taken steps to examine why these tragic circumstances are affecting Indigenous people within our facility,” she said. “We are very interested in any advice and insight the independent review could offer us with regards to ways this program might be improved to better serve our residents as we move forward.

“Our hope is that as a community we can face these challenging and complex situations in a constructive and collaborative way that pulls people together.”

The Dze L K’ant-BCAAFC press release suggested the deaths, and possibly others within the community are linked to “Smithers’ lack of culturally safe housing programs for Indigenous people.”

“We know that Indigenous-led, culturally safe supportive housing is needed to provide equitable care to Indigenous people accessing housing assistance,” said Morgan.

“Smithers has the poorest example of Indigenous housing support in the province and we need to change that.”

The release takes clear aim at the practice of Indigenous support services being provided by non-Indigenous agencies, as in the case with Goodacre Place, which is run by the Smithers Community Services Association (SCSA).

“We are seeing funding intended to support services for Indigenous people awarded to non-Indigenous agencies across all social service sectors,” said Leslie Varley, executive director of the BCAAFC, “Non-Indigenous agencies controlling services for Indigenous people perpetuate the barriers to equitable care. This can have deadly consequences when we are hearing from Indigenous people that they do not feel safe accessing social services.”

READ MORE: Freak accident claims life of Arthur Tom

Morgan wants all of the community leadership, including SCSA, the Town of Smithers, Northern Health, the RCMP and elected provincial and federal representatives to solve the problem.

She believes the willingness is there from everyone but wants action now.

That action, at least in terms of an investigation, will begin shortly according to Stikine MLA Nathan Cullen. He told The Interior News the province is in the process of hiring two investigators, one of whom will be Wet’suwet’en, to do an independent review.

Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Taylor Bachrach provided an email statement.

“Having worked downtown for over a decade, I knew many of these men well and counted them as friends. We have much work yet to do to address the complex issues facing our most vulnerable, marginalized residents,” he said.

Smithers Mayor Gladys Atrill offered condolences on behalf of the Town of Smithers, saying the town is willing to do what it can and has already supported Dze L K’ant’s application for Indigenous housing with a letter and by identifying potential land for the project.

“This last year of the pandemic coupled with the ongoing opioid crisis has increased stresses felt by those who are homeless, suffering from mental health and addictions, and by those agencies offering support to people in need.”

Goodacre Place was built to replace the emergency shelter Broadway Place with $6.1 million in capital funding and operational support from BC Housing.

It is named after former town councillor Bill Goodacre, who was a staunch ally of the Indigenous community in Smithers.

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